Eras­ing ugly history isn’t a cure

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY SALLY JENK­INS Sally Jenk­ins is a sports colum­nist for The Post and coau­thor with John Stauffer of “The State of Jones,” about Union­ists in Mis­sis­sippi dur­ing the Civil War.

The low­er­ing of Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flags across the South is not a vic­tory. It’s a cor­rec­tion, a small one, and to treat it like a vic­tory is wrong and di­vi­sive given the ex­am­ple in Charleston, S.C., where the for­giv­ing grace of nine fam­i­lies in fu­neral corteges is a con­tin­u­ing mir­a­cle that makes the head bow with hu­mil­ity.

What good is it to lower flags if it leads to chins raised in de­fen­sive­ness, de­faced stat­ues and sup­pres­sion of speech? To de­sen­ti­men­tal­ize the Con­fed­er­ate ban­ner and to in­sist on its re­moval from state­house grounds should not mean the whole­sale ef­face­ment of history. The least at­trac­tive fea­ture of the Con­fed­er­acy, be­yond its in­her­ent bru­tal­ity, was its in­tol­er­ance of dis­sent and de­ter­mi­na­tion to hi­jack the story of the war.

For too long, pop­u­lar con­cep­tions of the Civil War over­whelmed the truth that it was a war for white supremacy. But over­com­pen­sa­tion is not help­ful ei­ther, and com­men­ta­tors are right to com­plain of ex­cess when mon­u­ments to the long dead are spray-painted and Washington Na­tional Cathe­dral con­sid­ers break­ing its own win­dows sim­ply be­cause they con­tain flag im­agery that was meant to be con­cil­ia­tory. The cure, if there is one, is to look with clearer eyes at Civil War history, not to wipe history out. How to find the right line be­tween white­wash and back­lash, so the flags are prop­erly furled?

In 1868, Union gen­eral Ge­orge H. Thomas de­scribed bet­ter than any mod­ern com­men­ta­tor why the retelling of the Civil War be­came so con­tested and how a sym­bol of racist tyranny like the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag could be ro­man­ti­cized and tol­er­ated at state­houses in the first place:

“The great­est ef­forts made by the de­feated in­sur­gents since the close of the war have been to pro­mul­gate the idea that the cause of lib­erty ... suf­fered vi­o­lence and wrong when the ef­fort for South­ern in­de­pen­dence failed,” he wrote. “This is, of course, in­tended as a species of po­lit­i­cal cant, whereby the crime of trea­son might be cov­ered with a coun­ter­feit var­nish of pa­tri­o­tism, so that the pre­cip­i­ta­tors of the re­bel­lion might go down in history hand-in-hand with the de­fend­ers of the Gov­ern­ment, thus wip­ing out with their own hands their own stains.”

It was a form of self-for­give­ness, Thomas said. And North­ern­ers col­luded, partly from lack of will, and partly be­cause the na­tion was weary of strife and car­nage. As his­to­rian and Time mag­a­zine writer David Von Drehle de­scribed it, “For most of the first cen­tury af­ter the war, his­to­ri­ans, nov­el­ists and film­mak­ers worked like hyp­no­tists to soothe the post­trau­matic mem­o­ries of sur­vivors and their de­scen­dants.” Pro-South his­to­ri­ans such as J.G. Ran­dall con­tended the war was avoid­able and placed blame for it squarely on abo­li­tion­ists with their lu­natic “re­form­ing zeal” and lack of “tol­er­a­tion” and “hu­man val­ues.”

Abo­li­tion­ists were the in­tol­er­ant ones lack­ing in hu­man val­ues? This was taught and is still in­sin­u­ated to­day. Mas­sachusetts Sen. Charles Sum­ner was beaten within an inch of his life on the floor of the Se­nate by South Carolina con­gress­man Pre­ston Brooks over an anti-slav­ery speech. Yet Sum­ner is rou­tinely treated as the un­com­pro­mis­ing, charm­less ped­a­gogue, while Brooks is an in­ter­est­ing young hot­head. Jef­fer­son Davis ran what was es­sen­tially a to­tal­i­tar­ian state: He im­posed mar­tial law on Rich­mond in 1862, and cit­i­zens who har­bored Union sen­ti­ments or who re­fused to vol­un­teer for reg­i­ments were clapped in irons and had their homes burned. Yet it is Abra­ham Lin­coln’s sus­pen­sion of habeas cor­pus we dwell on.

The ten­sion be­tween who and what to com­mem­o­rate or con­demn is con­stant. There are no fewer than five heroic bi­ogra­phies of J.E.B. Stu­art and in­nu­mer­able cin­e­matic de­pic­tions. But why should we know so much more about Stu­art than we do about Union cav­al­ry­man Charles Rus­sell Low­ell III? The scion of a great Bos­ton fam­ily, he en­listed with U.S. cav­alry reg­u­lars, and when asked why he didn’t join a com­pany of gen­tle­men elites, he re­sponded that he didn’t want to serve with dandies and “driv­ers of gigs.” When he was shot in the chest at Cedar Creek, he re­fused to move to the rear, in­stead in­sist­ing his men help him re­mount for a coun­ter­at­tack. He was shot down again, fa­tally.

Low­ell’s death equally dev­as­tated Bos­ton so­ci­ety, which had just lost his brother-in-law-Robert Gould Shaw, and the hard-bit­ten Army. Ge­orge Custer wept and Phillip Sheri­dan said, “I do not think there was a qual­ity which I could have added to Low­ell.” Yet there was just one short book writ­ten about him, in 1907, un­til Carol Bundy res­cued him in 2005 with a bi­og­ra­phy ti­tled “The Na­ture of Sac­ri­fice.”

On the day of Low­ell’s fu­neral, his first bi­og­ra­pher, Ed­ward Waldo Emer­son, dis­cerned a strik­ing im­age. The cof­fin sat on an al­tar draped in the Amer­i­can flag, with his cam­paign gear laid atop it. “How strangely in con­trast with the . . . fresh white and red bunt­ing were the cam­paign-soiled cap and gauntlets, the worn hilt and bat­tered scab­bard of the sword that lay on the cof­fin,” Emer­son wrote.

We’re still grap­pling with this strange con­trast be­tween cleaner re­mem­brance and hard re­al­ity. This color-cor­rec­tion is a painful and some­times con­fus­ing ex­er­cise. Last week I com­pared the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag to a swastika. This was not meant to call South­ern­ers Nazis or ad­vance a hate­ful sen­ti­ment but sim­ply to be truth­ful about the fact that the Con­fed­er­acy was a regime ded­i­cated to racial pu­rity.

What to take down, and what to leave up? Flags in public spa­ces that seem to give racism on­go­ing state sanc­tion? Lower them, yes. But win­dows in churches that com­mem­o­rate the ter­ri­ble na­tional mu­ral that was the war, stat­ues in parks where bat­tles were fought, art­work or busts in the Capi­tol, which is it­self a mu­seum of history? Leave them there for ev­ery­one to con­tem­plate and learn about.

A flood of in­tel­li­gent com­men­tary has sorted through these ques­tions. Charles Krauthammer rightly wor­ried about a “stam­pede to elim­i­nate ev­ery relic of the Con­fed­er­acy” and noted that Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery con­tains a mon­u­ment to South­ern sol­diers who did their “duty as they un­der­stood it.” But per­haps no one has made a more use­ful ob­ser­va­tion than Court­land Milloy, who is less in­ter­ested in see­ing the rebel bat­tle flag low­ered in “a flurry of po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency” than in help­ing to “raise the Amer­i­can flag a lit­tle higher.” Here is the ground for a gen­tler and more mu­tual un­der­stand­ing of history, on this week­end of fu­ner­als for the Charleston mar­tyrs, as the fresh col­ors are so painfully in con­trast with the hard re­al­ity of the soiled cam­paign.


A stained-glass win­dow atWash­ing­ton Na­tional Cathe­dral in­cludes the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag.

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